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One Thing at a Time
By Daniel Kenitz comment 0 Comments access_time 12 min read

I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.

Bilbo Baggins, “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien

Most productivity tips aren’t about productivity at all. If anything, they teach you productivity avoidance.

The ultimate irony of most “productivity” tips is that they’ll have you spending too much time doing too little. They’re teaching you how to do five minutes of guitar lessons per day, wasting your energy on the unessential.

I think you should do the opposite.

Why You Need To Do One Thing At A Time

Generally speaking, there are two ways to attack your daily schedule.

  • Width: Casting a wide net with your time. Spend all day long answering emails, learning new languages, practicing musical instruments, exercising, meeting new people, learning BJJ, studying how cars work, building a house, giving up smoking, learning to cook, eating healthier, building a rocket to Mars, planning interstellar domination, etc., etc. You’re spreading yourself too thin.
  • Intensity: One thing at a time. You do one thing, then the next. You finish all your work at the office. When you’re home, you’re fully present. You run on the treadmill for 10 minutes rather than walking and reading for 30. You want 100% of one thing.

Which one is better? In this article, I contend that you should do One Thing At A Time as much as possible. Stop the “five minutes of guitar lessons per day” insanity, discover what’s really important to you.

Then attack it relentlessly. Over and over. All the time.

Energy, Not Time, is Money

The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, as often as you can, and keep moving on.

Ulysses S. Grant

All of us are stuck with a fixed 23 hours and 56 minutes per day. We assume that if we’re going to perform well, we have to become expert time managers, hustling all the live-long day.

The problem with this approach is that it ignores that we’re biological beings.

It also ignores the compounding achievement power that comes with intense focus. You’ve heard this statistic before, but it’s worth repeating: Every distraction—every one!—costs 23 minutes until you recover.

Let’s say you had a relatively low-distraction day. Just 10 of them. But if you indulge 100% of them? That’s almost half your work day down the tubes. Texting. Emailing. By lunchtime, you’ve accomplished almost nothing, even though you’ve spent four full hours of energy.

But that’s not all you lose with every interruption.

Momentum

Let’s say you were to take my advice, click away from my newsletter, and tackle your most important daily task until it’s done.

Here’s what you’ll experience:

  • First 10 seconds: Fighting the temptation to keep doing what you were doing (fighting the momentum of the previous task). Tempting yourself with other tasks. What if you bookmark this newsletter and revisit it tomorrow? This first ten seconds is half the battle.
  • Next five minutes: Slowly reintroducing the task at hand. Gathering your thoughts. Okay, you need to clean the kitchen. Now what? Where’s the Lysol? Did you take out the trash yet? What should you do first?
  • Next ten minutes: Tackling one of the most important sub-tasks to accomplish your single-task goal. Taking out the garbage. Washing the sink. Now you’re entering true work. Momentum is starting to build.
  • Flow work: The most important goal of momentum. At some point, you will stop thinking about the task and will simply absorb yourself in it. Your work will be as optimal as it can be, provided you’re choosing the most vital tasks. Now you’re scrubbing the floors and thinking of nothing else but how to break up that pile of coagulated egg.

Now, if you were to spread yourself too thin with a tiny task, guess what you’re eliminating from your life?

That task-changing momentum that comes with the deep “flow” work.

For that reason, spreading yourself too thin is inherently inefficient. And don’t be surprised if you get tired of this inefficiency, stop taking DuoLingo lessons for five minutes a day, and drop off because you weren’t seeing the results.

This was an emotional reaction. And since you’re a biological being, it isn’t just about time management. Productivity is about managing your emotions and directing them in the most efficient way possible.

You can do this by taking on one task at a time until it’s finished.

It’s simple, but it’s not easy.

How John D. Rockefeller Approached Job Hunting

John D. Rockefeller had a reputation for being a man of nigh-on tyrannical self-discipline. I don’t choose that word at random. He once said: “I would rather be my own tyrant than have someone else tyrannize me.”

But contrary to what you might think, that didn’t mean 20-hour workdays. 

Remember: time is not the goal. Tasks completed are more important.

Rockefeller knew this by instinct. He would work in big chunks, then schedule time off with equal precision. He used his discipline with intense focus, then let go.

Here’s an example. On John D. Rockefeller’s Wikipedia page, you’ll see one sentence devoted to him becoming a bookkeeper as a teenager:

In September 1855, when Rockefeller was sixteen, he got his first job as an assistant bookkeeper working for a small produce commission firm in Cleveland called Hewitt & Tuttle.

This doesn’t tell the whole story. And it’s a story that demonstrates the kind of person Rockefeller would become.

It took a lot of persistence to land that job. In fact, Rockefeller made finding a job his full-time job

According to Ron Chernow’s biography:

Despite incessant disappointment, he doggedly pursued a position. Each morning, he left his boardinghouse at eight o’clock, clothed in a dark suit with a high collar and black tie, to make his rounds of appointed firms. This grimly determined trek went on each days–six days a week for six consecutive weeks–until the later afternoon. The streets were so hot and hard that he grew footsore from pacing them. His perseverance surely owed something to his desire to end his reliance upon his fickle father. At one point, Bill suggests that if John didn’t find work he might have to return to the country; the thought of such dependence upon his father made “a cold chill” run down his spine, Rockefeller later said. Because he approached his job hunt devoid of any doubt or self-pity, he could stare down all discouragement.“I was working every day at my business–the business of looking for work. I put in my time at this everyday.” He was a confirmed exponent of positive thinking.

For all of the thriving waterfront commerce [of Cleveland], the job prospects were momentarily bleak. “No one wanted a boy, and very few showed any overwhelming anxiety to talk with me on the subject [of bookkeeping],” said Rockefeller. When he exhausted his list, he simply started over from the top and visited several firms two or three times. Another boy might have been crestfallen, but Rockefeller was the sort of stubborn person who only grew more determined with rejection.

The average person might get to the bottom of their list and say “well, I’ve failed. Time to go home to the farm.” But Rockefeller was thinking about one thing at a time. He was thinking about tasks completed, one thing at a time. He wasn’t done until he had that job.

On September 26, 1855, Rockefeller “walked into the offices of Hewitt and Tuttle,” and earned an interview with Henry Tuttle. Soon, he had his job.

On to the next task.

How Rockefeller Employed Intense Focus on Minor Details

Once he got the job, the young Rockefeller didn’t rest on his laurels and declare himself a success. 

He’d done one thing at a time. Now that he got his job, he was on to doing the next thing as best he could. “He went at this task with an undisguised zeal,” Chernow writes.

Sure, it was thankless work. But one recalls what Martin Luther King said about small jobs:

If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music; sweep streets so well that all the host of Heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.”

Rockefeller did this with focus and intensity:

  • He meticulously reviewed bills and independently confirmed whether they were valid
  • He “pounced on errors of even a few cents,” writes Chernow.
  • He investigated claims himself, including those of one captain who was constantly putting in claims for damages. “I…found this captain had presented entirely unwarranted claims,” Rockefeller said. “He never did it again.”
  • He “served as a one-man collection agency for Hewitt’s rental properties,” displaying a “bulldog tenacity that took people by surprise. Sitting outside in his buggy, pale and patient as an undertaker, he would wait until the debtor capitulated.

But before you think this is advice to work yourself to the bones, consider how Rockefeller approached his schedule.

One day he decided to throttle [his work] obsession. “I have this day covenanted with myself not to be seen in [the office] after 10 o’clock P.M. within 30 days,” he wrote to himself.

When work was done, so was Rockefeller. That’s how he was able to sustain a high standard of productivity and success.

One thing at a time.

When you’re done, go rest and play.

Jerry Seinfeld and “No Appointments Until Noon”

Jerry Seinfeld is a famous proponent of the marking-your-calendar technique for productivity. But I was listening to “What a Joke” where Seinfeld explained a conversation he had with podcast co-host Tom Papa. In the conversation, they talked about what it would be like to spend a year doing nothing else but coming up with material. How productive would they be then?

A fantasy, as Jerry Seinfeld says. Life gets in the way. 

But what if they could find a way to have a part of that experience?

You’re going to have a morning little writing session that you’re going to do every day. And if anyone calls, no, I’m busy. If anybody calls, too bad. I’m available after noon.

This, too, was theoretical. But as Seinfeld said: “Why can’t we do that?” He says he sat down his wife and assistant(s) and told them his new philosophy: no appointments until noon.

How to “Do One Thing At A Time” and Conquer Every Day

The tl;dr here is simple: 

Pick the most important task of the day, work at it until it’s completed, and when you’re done, stop working completely.

Easier said than done, though. How do you make sure all that energy is being put to good use?

  • Concentrate your energy by selecting the most high-value task to start with. This one is simple. If you have an unpleasant task ahead of you—eating a frog—your best bet is to do it right away. One problem is that this requires an additional step. You have to prioritize your day. You have to take a few minutes and determine what today’s frog is. But this is one case where I think that addition is worth it. You’ll ensure that you don’t spend that precious, limited momentum on something that doesn’t serve you.
  • Stop “optimizing your time” and start doing the uncomfortable thing. Too many productivity tips ask us to optimize our time. Install this app, employ that browser tool, tweak two minutes off your day! Stop chasing the little stuff. Productivity is about getting yourself to do important things as quickly as possible. And the unfortunate reality of hard work is that it’s not always quick and pleasant. We’ll all be a lot happier if we accept that fact and stop trying to negotiate with the realities of deep work.
  • When the work is finished, log off, separate, and go and rest. If you spend 13-hour days with frequent breaks, you’ll never really recharge your battery. But you can sustain hard, deep work every day if you find that you’re finished by 3 p.m. and you use the rest of your time to enjoy yourself. Remember that productivity is not time management; it’s energy management. Employ your energy like an archer, aiming only at the target that gives your business the most points. Then, when you’re done, put down the bow and rest your arms for tomorrow.

I’m not saying it’s easy.

But your life might get easier.

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